In 2021 Yasuyoshi Chiba’s work consistently stood out to the Guardian picture editing team. From his coverage of the elections in Uganda at the start of the year, through to his images from the Kimana Sanctuary in Kenya and the harrowing work in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Chiba covered both the Olympics and Paralympics in his home country, Japan, in the summer, and then returned to Kenya, where he is based, and covered the Dance Centre Kenya’s Nutcracker show as the year came to an end.
We asked Chiba about about his experiences working on these stories throughout the year.
The year has been a reminder that my work is dealing with an unexpected future. Thanks to the delivery of the Covid-19 vaccines, the world has slowly resumed, and I also again feel the value of being in the field for photography.
Among the many things I have photographed, the events in Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray region in northern Ethiopia bordering Sudan and Eritrea, where I spent about two weeks in June this year, are something I cannot forget.
The conflict between the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the federal government has been ongoing for over a year now. On the day of the general elections in June, I requested my team to cover the humanitarian aid situation in Mekelle since I had photographed refugees who had fled into Sudan when the conflict began six months earlier.
There was no internet access on mobile phones, but daily life went on as normal. However, Ethiopian soldiers patrolled the city and were stationed at checkpoints. I was stopped many times to be by soldiers who checked my ID and temporary journalist visa.
On the day I was about to return to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian army bombed a market near Mekelle, and things started to change dramatically. We stretched our return date a bit and changed our flight to stay and cover the situation after that airstrike. After the seriously injured were brought in by ambulance, things began to take a sharp turn. Every day, the flights were cancelled, and it became impossible to leave even by land, as the border between the regions was a front line. One day the Ethiopian soldiers left without a fight and were replaced by TPLF soldiers who had been fighting on the front line for more than eight months, their flags now flying in the streets.
Then I witnessed an extraordinary sight: thousands of prisoners of war, trapped on the south-west front, were made to walk to the city’s correctional facility for criminals. Since I had avoided going to the frontline after speaking with my AFP team, I felt the reality of the battle in the faces and gait of the prisoners.
The soldiers seemed so exhausted, and some showed fear on their faces. At the same time, I started thinking that I needed to take pictures for their families to inform them that so many soldiers had survived. And I also hoped to gain attention from humanitarian aid organisations to support them.
In the end, four other international journalists and I hired an old van to follow the first UN convoy to escape from Mekelle to the eastern state of Afar. I was told the drive would be eight hours, but I didn’t know that the area is called the Danalik Depression, one of the hottest places on the earth. The water in my bottle became hot water in my pocket; my camera became too hot to hold.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics
After a year’s delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was called to cover the Olympics, but we were only able to photograph outside of the venues. After the Japanese government declared the state of emergency, the Tokyo Olympic committee decided not to have spectators in Tokyo and two other areas nearby.
It was a bit of a challenge. I knew this was a historic Olympics that would never happen again. I had been denied permission many times, but some people still had a will to help me.
I aimed to do two things at the Olympics. One, to capture the ordinary people who were watching the games. And the other to capture the scenes in Japan as the Olympics were happening.
I also understood that people’s cheers fuelled the athletes when I saw them cheering along the road during a triathlon competition.
Japan extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and expanded the measure to four more regions as it battled a record surge in infections a week into the pandemic-postponed Games.
Tokyo 2020 Paralympics
For the Paralympics, I was excited to shoot the sport events.
I was often moved by how the parathletes adapted and trained to perform. I was fascinated and amazed every day, and I realised one simple thing. No one can live alone, without help from someone. And we don’t have a limit.
Uganda – presidential election
I started the year covering the Uganda election. The government had shut down the internet a day before the voting and deployed security. I didn’t see any protests or opposition party gatherings. It’s the first time for me not to smell teargas during a presidential election in Africa. After a constitutional amendment to allow candidates over 75, Yoweri Museveni, now 77, one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, won the election to serve his sixth term since 1986.
Kenya – Locusts plague
In February, I joined the FAO, The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, for its ongoing locust operation in Kenya. They were embedded with a local chartered helicopter to spot a swarms of locusts. The pilot coordinated with another plane to spray disinfectant over a swarm. When we landed, the swarm started flying over us. The pilot had told me the locusts land on the east side of the hill to get the first-morning sunlight to warm their bodies to fly.
Kenya – Elephant corridor
In the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem next to Kimana Sanctuary in Kimana, Kenya, a turf war has erupted over a 180-acre avocado farm where elephants and other wildlife graze. Opponents of the farm say it obstructs the free movement of elephants and clashes with traditional ways of using the land. The farm’s backers deny this, saying their development poses no threat to wildlife and generates much-needed jobs on idle land.
I’d heard that an elephant crossed the road every night, so I tried to stay there and not disturb the elephants in the hope they would pass. After hours of waiting in the dark, I gave up. The next day, a ranger stopped me to tell me that they recorded the road every night with a surveillance camera and just a few minutes after I left, an elephant crossed. The next day, I asked the ranger to come with me to get advice on the best place to wait and shoot and I got lucky.
Kenya – a day after curfew lifted
It was a moment for all people in Kenya to breathe when the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, lifted the nationwide curfew that had been in place since March 2020. I usually use this kind of timing to make a street shot, but it’s always too difficult to walk around with my camera. Since I look like an obvious foreigner, people interrupt me by asking for money. Probably someone informed police officers on night patrol, they came to me to check my passport. They took my press card issued by the government, asked me to go to a police station nearby. On the way, they asked me why I had not come to the station first for help. I agreed with them and promised to meet them another night. Amazingly, when I went back to the same street with them, no one was disturbed; I became invisible and enjoyed the night shooting. Vivid scenes of people’s lives are always my favourite subject. Of course, I showed my gratitude to them in my way.
Kenya – Nutcracker rehearsal
Photographing the Nutcracker rehearsal allowed me to blur the boundary between my private life and my work life. I took my daughter along to the dress rehearsal of the traditional Christmas ballet spectacle by the performers of the Dance Centre Kenya. I liked the unique view of the sky behind dancers at the open stage before more than 1,000 kids invited from Kibera slum. I believe that any of them could be a principal dancer.
DCK, founded by a few passionate families in early 2015, provides lessons based on the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus. Selected students in various schools and slums receive scholarships to promote developing their talents.
Now, I’m in a small hotel room in quarantine for two weeks as a close contact of someone with the Omicron variant on my arrival in Japan. So my holiday season is alone and away from my family, another unexpected future.
When I look back on this year’s works, apart from my own photography, I appreciate receiving great images from local photographers from each country in east Africa.
In this pandemic with movement restrictions, their presence is reassuring. So one of my tasks in 2022 would be encouraging them to deliver more visual stories to the world.